Is the Ben Carson Campaign a People-Powered Dynamo or a Scam?

The rumors have been surrounding Dr. Ben Carson’s campaign almost from the beginning: multiple unauthorized Super-PACs raising money using his name; a heavy, heavy investment in direct mail; some sketchy people in the picture. This all added up, arguably, to a presidential campaign at a high risk of becoming one of those scams where money is raised to pay the people raising the money.

As he burst into the top tier of candidates late this summer and then continued to ascend in the polls and the fundraising totals, there was considerable prurient interest in what the more detailed financial reporting would show about where the man’s money was going. And so now the Atlantic‘s David Graham has the first of what could be many analyses of Team Carson. Graham doesn’t resolve the key question of whether Carson is running a people-powered dynamo or a self-generating scam, but does provide some facts germane to the issue.

One of the most important metrics in fundraising numbers is the burn rate—the proportion between the cash that campaigns are raking in, and the amount they spent in the same time period. Carson’s burn rate is 69 percent. That’s generally considered high, though it’s hardly the highest total in the field: Hillary Clinton’s campaign had a whopping 86 percent burn rate. As as logic holds, it’s generally preferable to have a lower burn rate now and save for later in the campaign. But a lot of that depends on how the money is spent: Is it building a long-term organization that will provide for the campaign going ahead? If so, spending now isn’t an all-bad thing.

In Carson’s case, a majority of what he’s raising is being plowed right back into fundraising costs—$11.2 million of the nearly $20.8 million. That means 54 cents out of every dollar Carson raises is going to raise more money. Carson’s campaign only spent roughly $3 million on everything else—merchandise, office supplies, field staff, space, travel, and so on. Compare that to Clinton, whose biggest expenses included media buys, payroll, and online advertising, spending that’s designed to build a real campaign infrastructure and future strategy.

There’s some evidence Carson’s burn rate is dropping, which is what you want. But his heavy reliance on the ancient technique of direct mail is troubling to some observers.

Many strategists say direct mail is an important part of a diversified strategy. Other operatives, though, when discussing the Carson campaign, use words like “grifters” or “unconscionable.” They complain that Carson’s fundraisers appear to be reaping small-dollar donations from atypical donors and true believers while doing little with that money to build the infrastructure to win the nomination. For the majority of analysts who still consider Carson a very long shot to win the nomination, anyway, there appears to be no big downside for the candidate. But what about the earnest folks writing the checks?

Graham goes on to note that several of Carson’s direct-mail wizards spent the last presidential cycle working for groups affiliated with Newt Gingrich’s campaign, frequently accused of being mostly a vehicle for keeping the former Speaker in the public limelight and living a comfortable lifestyle.

The 2012 Gingrich campaign and the 2016 Carson campaign share staff, and they share candidates who have proven they are able to rise to the top of the field—though the former speaker’s campaign showed that such success can be fleeting. Both campaigns have also been accused of using a campaign as a tool to sell books. Late in 2011, Gingrich and his wife Callista seemed to be combining a tour for their various books along with his stump appearances, requiring a delicate balancing act to adhere to the law.

Carson is now doing something similar, spending some time doing book events—which can’t be paid for with campaign cash—while also doing some fundraisers and campaign events. (The campaign notes that he isn’t suspending all political activity.) Leon Wolf at RedState rolled his eyes at the move. “If Ben Carson wanted the job of being President, there is no way that a book tour would prevent him from doing everything in his power to expand his campaign right now and to take over the lead for good from Donald Trump,” he wrote.

On the other hand, Carson’s doing better in the Invisible Primary right now than Gingrich ever did, and he is showing some grassroots strength, particularly in Iowa. His approval ratios are also currently off-the-charts, another thing Gingrich could not boast of at any point in his long political career.

We may not know until the Iowa Caucuses whether Carson is a serious or a Potemkin candidate, which is about when we’ll also have the information to figure out whether all the money he’s raised is promoting his candidacy or simply enhancing the checking accounts of his fundraisers and ultimately his own self. It’s a fascinating chimera at the moment.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.